Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Wednesday, Aug 14, 2002
Agri-Biz & Commodities - Water Management
Columns - Down to Earth
The racket of water cooperatives
THE farmers from Yeole taluka of Nashik district, Maharashtra, are angry and howling in protest. In a well-attended conference at Yeole on August the 10, they declared that no Maharashtra Minister of State would be allowed entry in the taluka till their acute hardships, with respect to water supply, were resolved.
They will also launch a campaign against corrupt officials of the revenue and the water departments and a list of such officials will be published and their residences gheraoed until an inquiry into their movable and immovable property is ordered.
Why are the farmers of Yeole annoyed? Therein hangs a long tale.
According to the irrigation system established during the British Raj, the officials in charge of reservoirs of dams kept a watch on the water levels and decided what quantity of water should be released for different purposes, for example, the drinking water requirements of urban areas and the irrigation requirements of agricultural crops. The allocation of water was generally fair.
The water allotted for irrigation flowed through canals and sub canals (paats) and was finally let into the fields according to the quotas obtained by respective farmers. The water let into the field was not measured. There was no volumetric control whatsoever. There was no accounting of water flowing through the canal network either. The petty official, paatkari, could, at his discretion, turn a Nelson's eye at the quantity of water released and the frequency at which it was released. The paatkari could dictate his price, which was paid without demur by most farmers and other beneficiaries. The price rarely exceeded the water rate that would be payable to the irrigation department. The influential farmers benefited; the paatkaris amassed fortunes. Those who suffered were the farmers at the tail end of the canal network. They were generally left high and dry and received no water, except when nobody wanted it. The other loser was the government. The revenue earned from the dams and irrigation works was so poor that it barely justified the construction cost or provided funds for fresh works.
The paatkari system of water control continued for decades. The obvious solution would have been to meter the water supplied to each farmer and charge him at a specified rate. That would have eliminated corruption and forced the farmers to be more conscious about the rational and economic utilisation of water. The metering idea found no favour with influential farmers, irrigation officials and politicians. And the paatkaris continued to rule even after Independence.
With the passage of time, the water available in the reservoirs became insufficient to meet the increasing demand for drinking and irrigation. Some smart NGO recalled that in the pre-paatkari days there existed a system under which village communities managed water supply in a fair and impartial manner. Suddenly, a new wave set in favouring creation of water cooperatives for controlling and supervising water supply for irrigation purposes. The water cooperative societies were allotted a certain quantity of water that was to be allocated to its members on the basis of well-identified crop-patterns. The government provided only so much quantity of water without undertaking any responsibility for adequate and timely irrigation to meet the requirement of each crop.
However, the managements of cooperative societies could not dodge the responsibility of ensuring that no crops suffered due to lack of water. The societies made an advance payment to the government for the quantity of water allotted to them and were paid a certain percentage towards their managerial cost.
A lot has been written in praise of these water cooperatives. The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Mr N. Chandrababu Naidu, boasts of over 10,000 water cooperatives in his State. Other States have fallen in line with great enthusiasm.
In States such as Maharashtra, the Government has announced that reservoir water will become available to farmers only if they organise themselves into cooperatives. And several thousand water cooperatives exist in Maharashtra, with Yeole taluka accounting for more than forty of them.
With the increase in population, the overall water available is inadequate to meet the demand. The allotment of water is planned by various politicians and bureaucrats.
The situation becomes particularly difficult in poor rainfall years. The bureaucracy are past-masters in drawing benefit from any situation of scarcity and can be counted on creating one if it does not exist on the ground. The water continues to flow from reservoirs behind dams into canal networks. The transmission and distribution (T&D) losses are more than 50 per cent. Even the State electricity boards cannot match this level of T&D losses!
The officials provide as much as 60-70 per cent towards losses and make reservations for the drinking water requirements of urban areas with pronounced generosity. The reservation for urban use in Yeole taluka is several times more than the assessed needs or even the storage capacity of urban water systems. Cities do not require all the water reserved for them and there comes into being a vast quantity of unaccounted water, which the officials can make available to those who want it at a price.
Once the water is let into the canal, farmers in adjacent areas are anxious to lift it through pumps. The price the farmers will be prepared to pay will make the mouth of even the greediest official water.
Now the clock has turned a full circle. The paatkari is now a non-entity. The more senior officials are able to sell water. The dams that feed Yeole taluka's canals are distant and most of the water is sold out even before it reaches the taluka.
This year when the crops in large areas of the taluka were devastated by the drought, farmers started looking for the water-thief. The mystery was soon clear.
The Government used the cooperative organisations to exploit its members. Sugar factories ensure that cane growers do not rebel, no matter how low the cane prices and no matter what restrictions are imposed on them. Credit cooperatives manage to keep the farm-loan accounts running as if there were no defaults in repayment by a clever system of renewing old loans. The Government is now using water cooperatives for the same purpose. Prominent farmers who manage water cooperatives are exposed to the wrath of farmers who find their crops failing. Few can see the mischief of the politicians and bureaucracy.It is by sheer chance that Yeole's farmers unearthed the whole shady business. That is what enraged them to go on the warpath.
(The author is the Founder, Shetkari Sanghatana, and can be contacted at email@example.com)
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